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Civilians hired to aid Boston fingerprint lab

A year after shutting its troubled fingerprint lab, the Boston Police Department has hired two highly trained civilian analysts from the Vermont State Police to staff a restructured unit, while officers collect prints and process crime scenes, two law enforcement officials with knowledge of the arrangement said yesterday.

Police Commissioner Kathleen M. O'Toole closed the fingerprint unit last October after a private consultant issued a scathing critique. The consultant, Ron Smith, said the police officers working in the unit were poorly trained and overwhelmed by advanced fingerprinting work.

The unit was blamed last year for the wrongful conviction of Stephan Cowans of Roxbury, who was charged in the shooting and wounding of a police officer in 1997. Cowans was released from prison in January 2004 after serving about 6 1/2 years and is in the process of collecting money from the state for his wrongful incarceration.

The new civilian analysts will work on the more scientifically rigorous work of matching fingerprints found at crime scenes with those of known suspects, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the department has not announced the changes. Several other civilians could be hired, the department has said.

Yesterday, specialists called the separation of analysis and collection a critical step in restoring the fingerprint lab's integrity and credibility.

''We worry about a proprosecution bias developing among the examiners, thinking of themselves as an arm of the police," said Simon Cole, a professor of criminology at the University of California at Irvine and the author of a book on the history of fingerprint analysis and other criminal identification techniques. ''The likelihood of that is less if they're not actually police."

O'Toole didn't return phone calls yesterday seeking comment on the changes. A Vermont public safety official, however, confirmed that the analysts, Jennifer Hannaford and Rachel Lemery, have accepted jobs with the Boston Police Department. Hannaford began working in the fingerprint lab last week, said Eric Buel, the director of the Vermont Forensic Laboratory. Lemery will leave Vermont for Boston next week, he said.

Buel said the analysts, who could not be reached for comment yesterday, had been the only two latent print examiners working in the Vermont lab and had worked there for about two years. He said it is difficult to find qualified examiners and said the Vermont State Police will have to put all latent print work on hold until new analysts can be hired, which could take several weeks.

''You don't go to college and come out as a trained latent print examiner," Buel said. ''You're looking at a year-and-a-half, two years before somebody is prepared to do latent print analysis."

Buel said that Hannaford has a bachelor's degree in forensic science and that Lemery has one in criminal justice. Hannaford worked for five years at the Oakland, Calif., police crime lab, according to an article she wrote for a California forensic science journal. She is also a commercial artist who paints portraits using her own fingerprints. Buel said Lemery was trained at the Vermont lab.

The changes at the Boston lab are being made as the state's highest court weighs whether to ban the use of fingerprints as evidence in court until the analysis is subjected to rigorous scientific testing. The court is also considering whether to throw out fingerprint evidence against Terry L. Patterson, a Boston man being held without bail while awaiting a retrial on murder charges in the slaying of a Boston police detective in 1993.

Cole, who is cited along with 14 other scholars and scientists in a friend-of-the-court brief filed in the Patterson case, said there is increasing belief in the academic community that fingerprinting is scientifically untested.

David Procopio, a spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, disputed that assertion.

''Fingerprint science has proven reliable across a century of law enforcement investigations and prosecutions," Procopio said yesterday. ''We support the manner in which the Police Department is seeking experienced professionals to staff the [fingerprint] unit on a permanent, long-term basis."

Thomas J. Nee, the head of the Boston Police Patrolmen's Association, said he is satisfied with the restructuring of the lab. Police unions had been expected to oppose the hiring of civilians to handle latent print work, but Nee said department officials have guaranteed 27 jobs for patrol officers working as technicians collecting prints and processing crime scenes.

''The processing of crime scenes is very important," he said. ''We got a guarantee of training, staffing, and other areas of support that have long been sought by the BPPA."

Suzanne Smalley can be reached at ssmalley@globe.com.

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